The Digital is a Ruin: Digital Space, Geography and the End of the World

05 Nov, 2023

The Digital is a Ruin: Digital Space, Geography and the End of the World

Emma Fraser is speaking on November 8th at the Geography colloquium on "The Digital is a Ruin: Digital Space, Geography and the End of the World."

Using the case study of urban and ruin imaginaries in the virtual worlds of digital spatial media, this presentation examines the potentiality of digital space as both a conceptual term and increasingly prevalent shorthand for the perceived hybridity of digital and material experience. The focus on urban ruin engenders questions of visual representation and meaning making, the production of digital space, and the politics of encounter through play and imaginaries of the end of the city. Ruins in virtual worlds are navigable, computational, and representational forms, which, I argue can be understood as simultaneously masculine and normative (as in the practice of urban exploration), and open to radical potential and possibility (as in a Queer reading of the end of the world). In this reading, ruinous framings are a marker of fundamentally fragmented digital forms, understood against cultural contexts of chaos and disintegration and established discourses of urban and everyday life impacted by crisis and disaster. How does the multivalent spatiality and signification of ruin provide a useful inroad to the critique of emerging technologies and environments like video games, the ‘metaverse’, and augmented or mixed reality?

Here, I make the case that the emergence of spatial, navigable, and increasingly large-scale virtual worlds is a phenomenon that demands a reconfiguration of existing and emerging geographical thought. To understand the contemporary formation of digital spaces in virtual worlds – which I describe in terms of digitality and ruinality – it is necessary to expand key frames around space, place, and cities. Further, Walter Benjamin’s work on urban experience and modernity also enables the articulation of a relation between digital worlds, discourses of crisis and catastrophe, and the figuration of the ruin as a material and symbolic index of decline under capitalism. Finally, this presentation argues that the prevalence of ruined cities and imagined catastrophes in contemporary digital media is significant to the form and spatiality of digital worlds and cultures, providing considerable grounds for a critical interpretation of digital media as fundamentally spatial and geographical.

Emma Fraser is an Assistant Teaching Professor in Media Studies and the Berkeley Center for New Media at UC Berkeley. Emma’s work examines the relation between ruin and contemporary experience, particularly in post-War Western Europe and post-industrial America. Emma has also researched the ways in which cities decline and fall apart; the relations between digital media and fragmentation, and contemporary visions of the end of the world. Walter Benjamin’s work on rubble and history is central to these investigations, informing her approach to both critical media analysis, and urban field work. She is currently working on a book about ruins and digitality, with a focus on space, image, experience, and catastrophe.